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Posted Under Death & Dying

Why We Fear Death

Dying Rose

Someday, you will die. It could be a month or two from now, in a terrible car accident. It could be a couple years from now, in your sleep. It could even be many decades in the future, surrounded by family and friends while hooked up to hospital tubes as your vision slowly fades to black. The ways and manners in which you could die are practically endless, but despite the uncertainty over how you'll die, the only absolute guarantee is that you will die.

How does that make you feel? Nervous? Scared? Does it make you sad? Does it make you feel uncomfortable? Make you start shifting in your seat or even set off a nervous tick of anxiety? Don't worry; all those fears, thoughts, and preoccupations are normal. The fear of death is natural; not only that, it's instinctual. Every living being on this earth is naturally averse to dying and does everything it possibly can to not die. Even mundane things like eating is only something we do (or are supposed to do, at least) to not starve and die. (Granted, eating has become a whole ritualized ceremony unto itself in every culture, but its everyday roots are in preventing death.) So, fearing death is natural. If you're scared, it means you're human.

So then, why do we fear death? It's not a new phenomenon. We've been scared to die ever since our species evolved into existence. Admittedly, men and women far wiser than me have long pondered this idea throughout human history, and there are many theories. For me, in exploring the globe and writing my book, Morbid Magic: Death Spirituality and Culture from Around the World, I've seen many sides to our universal anxiety over death and, based on the seeming patterns and commonalities we all share throughout almost every culture, I have come up with my "Top 5" insights as to why we fear death.

1. Loss of Control
We humans tend to freak out when we think we don't have control over things. We've advanced to be able to live all over the world thanks to controlling the earth. We pump water into arid lands, cut down forests and jungles for farmland, domesticate animals for labor, and clothe and shelter ourselves in ingenious ways. Death, however, is something we have never been able to control. We've certainly tried, through our searches for elixirs of eternal life and fountains of youth, but even with modern science, we've only been able to prolong life, not eradicate death. And it's this inability to control our own destiny that worries so many people. Moreover, death can come at any time, via a freak accident or a medical anomaly. This exacerbates our fear of death, because more than just a loss of control over our ultimate destiny, we cannot even truly control when, where, how, or the cause of our inevitable demise. We fear the unknown, and death and all its details are the ultimate unknowns. Realizing that we cannot ever fully control our future because of all these unknowns scares the hell out of us, and it's one reason why we fear death.

2. Things Left Undone
There is so much possibility in life. Almost everything seems achievable, all dreams can materialize...if only we had enough time. Time, though, is the one thing we can literally never get more of. All we get is a lifetime to go after everything life has to offer; no more, no less. But everyone's lifetime is different; for some it's a century, for others it's a year or two, and for most it's an unknown number somewhere in between. Still, it's never enough. We bank on living a long time and accumulating enough wealth to be able to vacation and pursue hobbies in our golden years. But old age is a gift denied to many, and even many old people have regrets of not being able to do and achieve all the want in life. This is supremely scary, knowing that everything we ever worked for and wanted will suddenly come to nothing if we do not finish or obtain them before our unknown time of death. Because our entire lives are dedicated to achieving one thing or another, knowing that we might never achieve something we've spent so much of our limited, precious time pursuing scares us. And even if we wait until we have the time and resources to fully go after our dreams, there's no guarantee we won't die waiting. No one has the time do everything, and even the greatest and wealthiest among us had plans to achieve so much more than they already had done. So, the fear of not being able to get all we wanted, or hoped for, or expected out of life before our time is up is another reason why we fear death.

3. Leaving Loved Ones Behind
Not all fears about death center on our own self and personal desires. For a lot of us, we fear what may befall our family and friends when we die. Maybe we've accepted our mortality and are at peace with the fact that all things must pass, but we don't want those people precious to us to suffer from our passing. Grief is one inevitability that lies in the wake of our death. We've all lost someone dear to us (or will someday), and the pain of grief is overwhelming and never fully goes away. We don't want to inflict that pain and sorrow upon those who love us, and ironically, those who love us more will be disproportionately more affected by our death than those who aren't as close to us. And what if we have young children? The pain we will give them of growing up without their mom or dad is tragic. We know our death will cause immeasurable grief to those we love, and so we fear death because of how it will hurt others. More than just that, though, death can come at any time, and if we are the breadwinner of the family or have dependents, our death will be devastating on an economic level, too. Bankruptcy, losing a home, loss of medical benefits, and so much more can happen when a crucial pillar of the family upon whom all depend suddenly dies. So, though we might be personally at peace with dying, we fear death because of how horribly this thing we cannot control will affect those we care about most.

4. The Afterlife
No one really knows what happens to us after death. The only people who know are, well, dead. And sure, many of us have beliefs about what will become of us, but a belief (even a very strong belief) is not the same as knowing. In the West, many people fear that they will not be pure or worthy enough to enter a land of paradise and that they will be doomed to suffer in a hellish underworld. Other cultures believe that you'll have to start all over again via a rebirth into this world of suffering, some others believe that endless monotony or eternal gloom and doom is the only afterlife; the list of different cultural beliefs is endless. (You can explore quite a good many more of them in Morbid Magic.) But, when it comes down to it, no matter how good or positive our cultural or personal belief of what will happen in the afterlife, we still fear death. This is because a part of us, however subconscious or primal, doesn't fully accept that we know, with one hundred percent certainty, know what will happen to us after death. I mean, let's be honest: if we knew for absolute certainty without any doubts whatsoever that the afterlife was a glorious, magical place of wonderment (or even somehow better than our current life/reality) suicide would be that much more common. What's stopping us from taking full control of our destiny if we know something heavenly awaits us once we die? It's because we don't truly know what happens after death. Of course, if we believe something bad happens, then yeah, we're not going to do it, obviously. But even if we opt for a painless way to go, have no dependents, and think something better (or at least not as bad) awaits us in the great beyond, the vast majority of us still don't go because there is a fear of the unknown over what happens next. The unknown scares us, and because life after death is the ultimate thing we can never know while alive, we fear death for what unknowns lie in waiting.

5. No Afterlife
You know what is just as scary as not knowing what happens after death? Believing nothing happens after death. Since the Age of Enlightenment, skepticism and the rejection of basing one's beliefs on the intangible promises of religion have really taken stride. Nowadays, there are more agnostics and atheists than ever, and yet those of us who believe that there's nothing to believe in still fear death. Beyond the loss of control, leaving things undone, and leaving loved ones behind in grief, believing that there is no afterlife and that nothing happens after death is frightening. Keep in mind, the oblivion of nothingness is not the same as an eternity of nothingness. When most people think of no afterlife, they conjure up fears of existing in a weightless state devoid of the senses, floating around in infinite blackness. But that's still technically an afterlife, since there would have to be some iota of consciousness remaining after death to be able to perceive and experience that nothingness. No afterlife means no consciousness. We wouldn't even be able to perceive the darkness, since we have ceased to exist completely. On a philosophical level, it is seemingly impossible to even conceive of what it's like to not exist. Believing that everything suddenly ends, that all sentient existence of us disappears into nothingness forever, is beyond human thought. Our inability to even think about and thus mentally prepare for everything ending amplifies our fears of death's unknowns, especially when we know that it's part of our unchangeable destiny. So, the fear of death because there is no afterlife is just as bad as the fear of death because there is an afterlife.

Death is scary. If we're really honest with ourselves, something about our mortality scares us. Sure, it can instill us with personal drive to accomplish and achieve so much in life before our time comes, but even so, that drive is rooted in our fear of death. Cultures all over the globe, and throughout history, have tried to ease this fear through magic, mythology, and myriad other ways to try and ensure the best possible outcome for ourselves and our loved ones after death amid all its unknowns. So, if you're curious to learn these and more, check out Morbid Magic. Reading it definitely won't stop the inevitable from happening, but it can possibly ease the fear of death regardless of your personal reasons for fearing it. We all die, but maybe we don't have to live with so much fear of it, you know?

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About Tomás Prower

Tomás Prower (Los Angeles, CA) is the international author of multiple books, including Queer Magic. He has lived and worked in Buenos Aires, Santiago de Chile, Tijuana, Reno, and Long Beach. He is fluent in English, ...

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